Montreal police are being accused of political profiling — of searching and detaining people wearing the red square, the symbol of Quebec's protest movement.
A Quebec student group is calling for an independent inquiry into police actions over the Formula One Grand Prix weekend while also gathering details from recent weeks for a potential lawsuit.
The group, the more hardline CLASSE student association, is now gathering testimony from people who say their civil rights were violated last weekend.
Police denied the accusation that they specifically targeted red-square wearers. They admitted to searching people they deemed suspicious, and of using preventive arrests, but they said they were acting under constitutionally reasonable grounds, for legitimate security reasons.
The CLASSE group says it has received testimony from about 100 people who said they were victims of preventive detentions and political profiling. It also says there were illegal searches from police officers — a number of whom hid their ID numbers.
"What we've been seeing these last few weeks, and what we saw this weekend in particular, is really without precedent," CLASSE co-spokesman Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said Monday.
"We're talking about systematic searches in the subway and in the streets of people who were wearing the red square. It's extremely worrying for our democracy...
"We don't have to accept to live in a society where people are arrested in the street because of their political opinion, or political symbols."
Police defended their work over the weekend.
They said that an event — the biggest annual tourist event in Canada — had been threatened and they did their best to protect the people there.
"We had one sole objective: to ensure the safety of people participating in that event," said Montreal police chief Marc Parent.
"Social peace was ensured Sunday."
The incidents under dispute appear to have taken place during Formula One car-race events. Some anti-capitalist and student protesters had promised to disrupt the four-day festivities.
For weeks, protesters in Montreal had been chanting during nightly demonstrations how they planned to spoil "Charest's" Grand Prix. An anti-capitalist group even posted an advisory laying out its plans to fill subway cars, obstructing them so people couldn't get to Sunday's race.
But their plans were ultimately thwarted. Police were seen forcibly escorting people, notably people wearing red squares, away from the race grounds and back onto the subway.
One young woman in tears said she was planning to get her ticket when she met up with a friend in front of the track. The woman, who had dyed red hair, accused the police of "profiling." A Canadian Press reporter who didn't have a Grand Prix ticket was also forced back on the subway.
Police said their interventions were targeted.
Parent said 50 people were prevented from taking the metro, out of 250,000 users. Masks, rocks and knives were among the objects seized by those arrested. Most of those arrested were being released without charge — in some cases after being held for a number of hours.
Parent said there were 34 preventive arrests — out of 110,000 people present at the Grand Prix site, on a tiny island next to Montreal. Some were not wearing the red square, he said, while other people wearing the red square were left alone by police.
"There was no systemic searching, detentions of people based on red squares," Parent said.
"It was based on behaviour that raised questions about their presence. You will recall there were also specific threats against the event Sunday... We have a policy on profiling — whether it's social or political profiling. There is no question of accepting in Montreal."
Over four days of Grand Prix events, Parent said there were 130 arrests. Eight police vehicles were damaged over the weekend.